“Let me be honest with you,” the rosh yeshiva began.
It was not a good sign. I was sitting for a farher, an entrance interview, with the rosh yeshiva of a well-known yeshiva in Jerusalem, and it was about to go very badly.
I was, to be fair, a very unusual applicant. I had just graduated from law school. My classmates and friends were headed off to prestigious clerkships or to seek their fortunes. I had other plans. My secular learning had now outpaced my Torah learning, and it was time, I believed, to catch up.
So I applied to a yeshiva renowned for its commitment and the dedication of its students. I prepared thoroughly and was sure my learning – my scholarship – was up to par.
I hadn’t gotten the look down quite right, I knew. My suit was too blue; my shoes too un-scuffed; my black hat somehow at the wrong angle. But surely, I told myself, these things didn’t matter; my commitment, my dedication and my ability were what mattered most.
The rosh yeshiva was about to disabuse me of my innocence. Time seemed to slow down. I took a deep breath, glanced at the magnificent golden Jerusalem stone outside, and leaned in to hear the unpleasant truth.
“You’ve been to university, no?” the rosh yeshiva said, more statement than question.
“Acutally, law school,” I responded confidently. That couldn’t be a problem.
“Ah, law school,” he nodded back. “Noch besser. We don’t take students here who have gone to university.”
I sat there, stunned. I wasn’t getting in. My ability and my commitment weren’t what mattered after all. I was of the wrong caste. I was unsuitable.
But I had traveled a long way and sacrificed a great deal to be in that room, so I wasn’t going to give up so easily. A note of desperation crept into my voice. I nearly begged: “But I’ll follow all the rules. I’ll keep all the sedarim!”
“No, no, no!” came his excited reply. “That would be worse!”
He grew animated, as earnest in his convictions as I was in mine.
“You see,” he continued, his voice rising, “we teach our students that university is chazer treyf. Chazer treyf! If you kept the sedarim, if you followed the rules, that would just become confusing to our students. I’m sorry, but it’s out of the question; you cannot come to this yeshiva.”
The interview over, I shuffled out of the room, passing by the beis medrash to which I had just been denied entrance. I glanced in and recognized some old friends. That was when the realization really hit me. It was me he was rejecting. My old friends sitting in that beis medrashhad also gone to college.
* * * * *
With hindsight, I was able to decipher what the rosh yeshiva was saying, what it was about me in particular he wouldn’t – couldn’t – allow in. He was telling me I was “modern.” He was telling me that, unlike the other college graduates, when I went to law school I hadn’t just learned a trade – I had also absorbed its values.
The rosh yeshiva was right. In three years of law school I had come to believe that Washington and Lincoln were important men; that the American Revolution and the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement were important events; and that free speech, democracy and tolerance were important ideals. They weren’t Torah, to be sure. But the values of Madison and Jefferson and Hamilton had become my values as well, and those values were “modern.”
The problem was I didn’t want to be “modern.” I had shown up at that yeshiva’s doorstep because I had, in my earlier yeshiva days, developed a great love for the life of the yeshiva. The modern world seemed devoid of spirituality while the world of the yeshiva provided a wonderful spirit, from the simple activities of its daily life to the fiery passion of Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur.
The modern world seemed barren of ethics; the yeshiva provided access to a life of ethical purity. The modern world seemed lacking in intellectual honesty; the yeshiva was committed to the purest, most honest of intellectual activities.
Honesty, integrity, morality, sensitivity, passion, meaning – all these seemed to me to be missing from the world, and all seemed to be present in that beis medrash.
So I walked out of the yeshiva racked as if by a fever. The things I wanted most seemed to reside within. Yet my values were not welcome there. I was not welcome there.
I went to war. Desperate to somehow, some way, find a space where I could recreate the passion and values of the yeshiva, I fought raging battles across different times and dimensions.
I found a more tolerant yeshiva that granted me entrance. I got along well enough.
Then one Shabbos I shared a table with a kollel fellow and some friends. I was waxing eloquent on something or other I had read in the Jerusalem Post when a strange quiet descended. I continued, trying to explain myself, figuring they had misunderstood something I’d said. When I finished, the room was as deathly still as a funeral home.
Finally, as if to rescue me, the ba’al habyis offered me a fig leaf of support: “I guess, if you read the Jerusalem Post on Friday afternoon, after seder – well, I guess it’s all right,” he stammered.
It had never occurred to me that I needed permission to read the newspaper, or that doing so could be a bad thing. Reading a newspaper was a simple value of mine. Not Torah, to be sure, but a value nevertheless, and one I could not wish away no matter how much I tried.
* * * * *
Having failed at yeshiva, I joined the ranks of working bnei Torah – those whose hearts and souls remain in yeshiva even as their bodies are occupied with their jobs. Evenings were devoted to night seder and vacation time to a full-immersion Yarchei Kallah Torah-study program. I could show my secular side by day, all the while knowing it was just an act – my heart still lived in the yeshiva.
One day while riding the subway I met a friend who summed up my life perfectly. “I’m Superman,” he quietly confided. Either he had gone crazy or I had heard wrong, so I asked him to repeat himself.
“I’m Superman,” he said again. “I get up in the morning, and I’m tatty. Then I go into my room, lace up my wingtips, and I’m an entirely different person: I’m Joey the banker. Like Superman.”
But I wasn’t Superman. Much as I tried, I simply could not live divided against myself that way.
The downfall came quickly. The following Yom Kippur, I found myself struggling while klapping Al Cheit, having a hard time understanding just what I regretted, just what my sins were. Nothing came.
Suddenly, to my horror, I found myself regretting what I hadn’t done. As though I’d been seized by a dybbuk, each klap was accompanied with a vow that next year I would have something truly to be sorry for. I certainly didn’t mean to violate halacha, or to leave the frum community. But still, it was as if deep inside of me other values of mine were asserting themselves too, insisting that my greatest sin was not what I had done, but what I had failed to do.
I had failed to be truly alive, to be true to the full nature of my own self.
Yom Kippur concluded, I put my black hat back in its box. In its place, I took out an old T-shirt and jeans.
* * * * *
I briefly reveled in my newfound freedom. I could do anything and be anyone I wanted, restrained only by own conscience and the basic strictures of halacha. But I found that without being consciously attached to the world of the yeshiva, my religious devotion began to wane. Even my non-religious values seemed at risk.
Being frum and being a mensch, to me, were tied together like strands of a rope. Without one, I could see, I would have trouble being the other.
I stumbled around a little longer, and then, suddenly, the war was over; the fever had broken. Like a bee or a lion cub in a Disney movie, I had finished my journey and was ready to come home.
So, I asked myself: What had I learned? If I had the chance to confront that barely-remembered, idealistic young man waiting to go into that farher room, what would I tell him?
I hope I would tell him that everything he was looking for was right there at his own feet. I hope I would say there was a vision of being a Jew in America that could be just as meaningful and just as idealistic as the one he desired – though more difficult.
I would tell him he could be a Leather-Kippah (or yarmulke) Jew. A Leather-Kippah Jew is today’s successor to the old Blue-Hat Jew I described in my December 24, 2010 Jewish Press front-page essay “Death of the Blue-Hat Jew?”
Blue-Hat Jews were Jews who were Americans – fully engaged with the society around them while refusing to sacrifice their frumkeit. Similarly, Leather-Kippah Jews are those quietly committed, moderate members of our communities whose kippot signal their commitment to living a fully Jewish life not in isolation but in the world of today.
It’s not too complicated. You can sum it up with two simple statements: First, be a mensch. And then be yourself.
A Leather-Kippah Jew is absolutely committed to a Jewish life infused by the laws of Torah. To be a mensch we must look to the Torah because through its laws and lessons it instructs us on how to be the most outstanding person we can be.
Torah, through its teachings and its practices, shows us how to behave as a Jew in everything we do. It is only Torah that can direct us in being a Light Unto the Nations.
But there is more. You must also be yourself. There is holiness within each of us – holiness that is unique to each person. There are sparks of holiness too in the world all around us – in a lulav and an esrog, in our food, in the tailor’s needle, in a sunset, in trees.
As Jews, as people striving to be outstanding members of our society, we can, through our own personalities, engage with these things – with our food and with our work, with our communities and with society – and draw from them the special sparks of holiness that relate to us, to our own unique souls. And in doing so we can elevate these sparks and fulfill Hashem’s very purpose in Creation.
This vision, I would tell him, is uniquely challenging – and uniquely American. It is challenging because in this vision it is not enough to wield the Torah like a defensive shield, to see the world as corrupt and not worthy of attention or redemption. Torah must penetrate into our very selves and become part of who we are; and when it has it will inspire us to participate in society as full-fledged participants, not as mere pretenders.
And then we can go further and celebrate the unique opportunity America affords us. America encourages everyone to be true to his or her own self, to find work and play and activities that express a person’s uniqueness without affecting his communal attachments.
You can be anyone and anything you want; you can be true to the individual God has made you and still be a fully committed frum Jew.
To those who take advantage of it, the most amazing opportunities become available. You can be a social worker or a biologist, a businessman or a doctor, a butcher or a mohel, an architect or a marine biologist. You can do all of those things not by nurturing a secret identity but through the full expression of your entire being. And if you succeed, you can capture sparks of holiness that are yours and yours alone.
That, to me, is the wonderful challenge of the Leather-Kippah Jew. He is a blessing to Jews and a blessing to America. He is me, I hope, and my friends, and our families. He is truly a Superman – an integrated person at home and in the world.
He is a mensch. He is himself. And perhaps, dear reader, he is also you.
Mordecai Bienstock is a partner in the law firm of Wilson Elser where he practices health care law, government policy, and litigation. He lives in Albany, New York with his wife, Karen, and their three children.
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